Following Israel’s famous Gay Pride Parade on June 10th in Tel Aviv, the country’s gay youth is once again looking at ways to increase tolerance and equal rights for its members. While Israel is known as the gay capital of the Middle East, social prejudices still remain in certain communities.
Israel’s gay leaders say they have decided to take the future into their own hands – by shaping it themselves. The Israel Gay Youth organization (IGY) helps them do so by operating different leadership and outreach programs, designed to empower teenagers and to train them to be the future leaders, not only of the gay community, but the entire Israeli society.
IGY was stablished in 2002, as part of the Israeli national LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) association, in order to provide a social support network to LGBT teens at risk. Starting off as a small organization with a small number of people, the organization grew and is now operating about 40 different programs, in more than 25 cities and local authorities.
According to a 2004 study of the American Public Health Association, LGBT youth make up a disproportionately high number of homeless teens and LGBT youth are also up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to a Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey.
According to IGY, “These are only two examples of the high-risk behavior of many gay youth, resulting from highly stressful situations, such as increasing awareness of same sex attraction, disclosure of sexual orientation to family and friends and victimization provoked by their sexual orientation (verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, etc.).”
The organization’s emphasis is both on the general development of the gay community, as well as on the individual one. IGY tries to answer the needs of different communities within Israeli society by dividing them into groups: a group for teenagers, a group for religious boys, a group for the HIV positive, a group for religious girls etc. All groups are also divided further into age categories, enabling the counselors to focus on needs and problems which are specific to those groups, as they meet twice a week.
Referring to a 2009 shooting in an Israeli gay nightclub which resulted in two deaths, 29-year-old IGY counselor from Tel Aviv, Yuval Kerstein said: “After the shock of the shooting, I decided I wanted to give my personal input to the gay community, and thus started volunteering for IGY. It was only after that I realized the amazing impact the association had on young people.”
Most of the groups have strong ties with the local municipalities. “The municipality really supports us. They help with various things, from helping us arrange places to meet, to organizing congresses on LGBT rights,” says Kerstein.
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One of IGYs primary aims is to promote social interactions between the LGBT community and the rest of Israeli society. After the shooting at the night club, IGY launched a new project, entitled Ambassadors, to help stop exposure to homophobia in Israeli society. In the framework of this project, the groups are brought to schools, youth movements, senior citizens’ homes and other community centers, to present “the real face of the gay community.” The members organize presentations, tell their stories and organize workshops.
Trips abroad are also organized: Last spring, four members traveled to San Francisco, to meet with the local gay community and talk about being a gay teenager in Israel.
Interaction with the Parents
Another important aim of IGY is to organize regular meetings with parents of the youths, where family reactions to homo/bi/trans-sexuality is a recurrent theme of discussion. For this project IGY partnered with Tehila, an organization providing support for parents and families of LGBT individuals.
“These meetings are really important, as it helps the kids to understand the position of their parents, and in a way to accept it and help them go through it, not by holding a grudge against them, but by easing the process of acceptance,” Kerstein told NoCamels.
Israel’s Ministry of Education is also helping in the fight for equality by offering financial assistance to the gay community. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also created an option to perform national social service within the IGY organization, rather than enrolling in the army.
Photo Courtesy of IGY